Should you be concerned about naegleria fowleri, the “brain eating amoeba”?

by Dr. Aaron Hanshaw on August 24, 2011

Recently, there have been three deaths in the U.S. due to a “brain eating amoeba” named Naegleria fowleri. The deaths were reported in Virginia, Florida, and Louisiana.

Typically, the amoeba lives in warm, stagnant freshwater places, like lakes, rivers, and hot springs. According to the CDC, in rare instances, “Naegleria infections may also occur when contaminated water from other sources (such as inadequately chlorinated swimming pool water or heated tap water <47°C) enters the nose”.

These small one celled creatures cause problems by getting through the protective nasal mucosa and reaching the brain. This occurs when people  swim or dive in infected waters. Once entering the brain, the ameba causes a usually fatal infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis, an almost always fatal condition.

These infections are extremely rare, but have concerned parents keeping their kids out of fresh water around the country. Current recommendations from the CDC include:

  • Avoid water-related activities in warm freshwater during periods of high water temperature and low water levels.
  • Hold the nose shut or use nose clips when taking part in water-related activities in bodies of warm freshwater.
  • Avoid digging in, or stirring up, the sediment while taking part in water-related activities in shallow, warm freshwater areas.

What are brain eating amoeba symptoms ?
If a person has been swimming in fresh water and any symptoms occur, including fever, nausea, headaches, vomiting, or stiff neck,  seek help immediately. Later symptoms include confusion, hallucinations, balance loss, and seizures.

Symptoms can begin as long as a week after exposure, but progress fast and can lead to death within two weeks. Due to the rare nature of the disorder, diagnosis is very difficult and requires a spinal tap. The treatment of this disease is IV antibiotics, and the result is a 98% death rate.

Can you find Naegleria fowleri in Ohio?
There are usually six to eight cases of N. fowleri infections per year which occur primarily in the United States southern tier.  While a death occurred in Minnesota in 2010, there have been no reported deaths in Ohio. This makes it extremely rare, only gaining recognition in the media due to the young age of victims and closeness of cases recently.

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